The Politics of Unquiet

Edward Batchelder, Guest Editor
Edward Batchelder

I was standing in a demonstration in Nashville last spring when I heard it. From far down at the other end of the…well…30-odd protesters who had come to throw sabats into the machinery of President Bush’s war plans it came—a faint, plaintive voice carrying the melody of a tune I hadn’t heard sung publicly since adolescence:

“All we are saaaay-ing
Is give peace a chance.”

Oh no, I thought sadly, here we are—a new millennium, a new president, and a new war in a new part of the world…and this is the best we can do?

It was only later, as I thought about it, that I recognized how absurd my reaction had been. What had I expected, after all—a group sing-along of the “Chorus Of Exiled Palestinians” from John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer? Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated transcribed for acoustic guitar? A rousing, feel-good version of George Crumb’s Black Angels?

The point is that there has always been a certain incommensurability between political activities that depend on mass mobilization and the idiosyncratic sensibility of the aesthete—even the public-spirited, politically active aesthete. For every argument that aesthetic concerns are a luxury in the face of political injustice, there is the rebuttal that aesthetic freedom is as necessary for the human spirit as any political right. “It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives,” wrote Theodor Adorno, “but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads.”

As Kyle Gann documents in this month’s HyperHistory, the tension between these two poles has tormented a long line of American composers. Some—as the poet Mayakovsky put it—set their heel on the throat of their own song and turned their art over to the demands of their political convictions. Others struggled to find some small overlapping territory where formally innovative music might also carry a political reverberation. Still others moved back and forth between the two, seeing them as separate, but equally pressing, commitments.

The individual statements in Hymn & Fuguing Tune make clear that this question of art and politics continues to be answered in different ways by different people. Ten contemporary composers and performers, whose work has intersected with their own deeply held political beliefs, talk about what has inspired their music, and what they hope to achieve with it. Moving in the other direction, we also feature an extensive interview with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah about his growing career as a songwriter.

And finally, the choice of the singer, pianist, and composer Diamanda Galás for the featured interview was clear to me from the start. For over two decades—from her first appearance in an opera about political torture through her Plague Mass for AIDS to her most recent work on the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides of the 1910s and ’20s—Galás’s work has articulated a fierce commitment to the dispossessed, abandoned, and wretched of the earth, while at the same time manifesting an equally fierce commitment to the demands of her own art. The connection she has forged between those two oft-opposed concerns is the basis for our discussion.